AgustaWestland, Airbus and Bell will make their mark this year with a new class of commercial helicopter.

Described as the super-mediums, the light-heavies and even the intermediate-heavies, the AW189, EC175 and Bell 525 Relentless will target what is likely to become a crowded market. While all three have approached it from a different perspective, and each comes with its own unique selling points, the biggest question is, who will steal the crown?

Bell's advanced 525 will be late to the game, as the aircraft is not due to fly until later this year. So the focus, for now, is likely to be on the 525's European counterparts, the AW189, and the EC175, both of which were certified within days of each other, the EC175 on Jan. 30, and the AW189 on Feb. 7.

Key to this new market is understanding how the operators that support the oil and gas companies operate. Faced with limited choice in the market, the operators have been forced to use types such as the Airbus—formerly Eurocopter—EC225 and Sikorsky S-92 on relatively short-haul missions of 100-150 mi. These large aircraft are designed for longer missions, out to 250 nm with full loads of up to 18-19 passengers. Consequently, the oil and gas industry has been calling for a short-haul bus with a smaller footprint that can deliver a high density of passengers at significantly lower operating cost than the S-92 or EC225 or, conversely, cheaper than flying a pair of AW139s, EC155s or S-76s to achieve the same objective.

A short-haul helicopter with a smaller footprint and lower weight would also give the companies access to a larger number of platforms that were previously accessible only to the aforementioned medium-sized helicopters.

“For Bristow, this category of aircraft means we can land on the smaller platforms we operate to in the southern North Sea,” says Mike Imlach, Bristow's European managing director. “By putting more passengers into a smaller aircraft, we are reducing the risk by doing fewer journeys, and we can offer a reduced cost to the client.” The aircraft arrive at a time when the even the large energy companies are looking to make savings on their operating costs.

Bristow will be the first customer to put the principle to the test. It is the launch customer of AgustaWestland's AW189, for which it has secured contracts with energy company GDF Suez for operations in the southern North Sea. Bristow says the AW189 will be an ideal replacement for its long-serving Aerospatiale AS332L Super Pumas, known as Tigers, which were starting to be retired from service and then were hurried back into operation after the grounding of the EC225.

“We evaluate where we put our commercial products, and when you go in the middle, you are not good at either one,” says David Martin, vice president of energy at Sikorsky. “The future remains to be seen, but there has been an aircraft in that weight class before, which was the Bell 214ST, and we will all wait and see if this attempt to resurrect that weight class is more successful.”

The 214ST enjoyed limited success with sales of just 96 examples between the late 1970s and 1993, with the majority going to military customers.

Airbus's 7.5-metric-ton EC175 has had a troubled development and, although it now it looks as if it will be the first of this new breed, customers may not begin receiving the helos until the second half of this year. Some of those customers placed orders for the type at its 2008 program launch.

The delays were caused in part by the cautious approach Eurocopter adopted since the investigation into the ditchings of two EC225s in the North Sea in May and October 2012 and the subsequent grounding of the type until last July. Dozens of engineers engaged on the EC175 were taken off that program and put to work on finding the reason for the failure of the EC225's bevel gear vertical shaft, an issue Airbus hopes to resolve later this year with the installation of a new design (see page 44).

Launch customers UTair of Russia, NHV of Belgium and Heli-Union of France should have begun receiving their aircraft about a year ago, but the airframer had difficulties with the integration and maturity of its Helionix avionics suite.

Putting that issue behind it, the helicopter maker realized the EC175 was proving considerably more capable than originally envisaged when it was set two climb-to-height records, to 6,000 meters and 3,000 meters, announced in November.

Now Airbus wants to mature the helicopter, iron out any remaining bugs and firm up the production process. It aims to accommodate more passengers in a 7.5-metric-ton (16,535 lb.) machine while retaining range: the goal is the capability to fly 12 passengers as far as 190 nm and 18 as far as 100 nm.

AgustaWestland's premise is similar. The 8,300-kg (18,300 lb.) AW189 will take 18 passengers 110 nm, 16 passengers to 140 nm and 12 to 200 nm. The difference between the two is narrow, but Airbus claims that the 800 kg difference between the two maximum takeoff weights could be a significant selling point for its aircraft. “Sales have not been strong across either the AW189 or the EC175,” says Dominique Maudet, Airbus Helicopter's executive vice president for global business and services. He suggests that the industry is being cautious about the new class of helicopter.

Nonetheless, the AW189 has not had the publicized developmental problems of the EC175. The General Electric CT7-2E1-powered AW189 was born out of the hugely successful AW139 five-metric-ton helicopter, which has transformed the company's fortunes.

AgustaWestland saw an opportunity for an enlarged military variant of the AW139, revealing the plans in 2006, flying the aircraft, known as the AW149, in 2009 and launching the commercial model, the AW189, at the 2011 Paris Airshow, while quietly surveying the market for the civil version. Since then, it has cornered the market, garnering slightly more orders than the EC175, including from Qatar-based Gulf Helicopters for 15 helicopters during the Dubai Airshow last fall.

Most of the orders for the type have come from companies that already operate the AW139 and should benefit from AgustaWestland's family concept, which markets the two aircraft along with the new AW169 that the helicopter maker also hopes will achieve certification this year.

All three AgustaWestland aircraft will feature similar design philosophies, cockpit layouts and maintenance procedures, allowing operators who use them to save engineering and training costs. But it has had to address certain shortcomings of the AW139, such as its nose-high hover attitude for which it has moved the center of gravity forward to reduce the angle of attack in hover.

The EC175 and AW189 have also found other roles, with two EC175s and one AW189 sold into the VIP role. Aircraft used for oil and gas missions are often considered to be well-suited for the search-and-rescue role, and Bristow chose the AW189 as the smaller platform to support the “Long SAR” search-and-rescue contract it has with the U.K. Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). The first of 11 aircraft destined for Bristow for the contract began assembly at AgustaWestland's facility this month. One AW189 is being flown from the site as part of certification flying trials for the SAR equipment package. The company projects sales of as many as 200 AW189 medium helicopters equipped for the SAR mission in the next 15 years.

Development of Bell's 525 continues apace, meanwhile. The company opened the orderbook for the aircraft at the end of 2013. It will be the first commercial helicopter with a fly-by-wire control system and, while heavier than the AW189 and EC175 at 8,750kg maximum takeoff weight, its cabin could seat 19 passengers in a high-density configuration, potentially competing directly with the EC225 and S-92.

Bell 525 Relentless
Powerplant 2 X General Electric CT7-2F1
Max. Cruise 155 kt. (287 kph)
Fuel Capacity 634+ gal. (2,400+ liters)
Standard Seating 2 crew and 16 passengers
Max. Seating 2 crew and 20 passengers
Max. Takeoff Weight 19,300 lb. (8,754 kg)
First Flight 2014
Source: Bell Helicopters
Airbus Helicopters/Eurocopter EC175
Powerplant 2 X Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67E
Max. Cruise 150 kt. (277 kph)
Fuel Capacity 685 gal. (2,590 liters)
Standard Seating 2 crew and 16 passengers
Max. Seating 2 crew and 18 passengers
Max. Takeoff Weight 16,535 lb. (7,500 kg)
First Flight December 2009
Source: Airbus Helicopters
AgustaWestland AW189
Powerplant 2 X General Electric CT7-2E1
Max. Cruise 145-150 kt. (268-277 kph)
Fuel Capacity 546 gal. (2,068 liters)
Standard Seating 2 crew and 16 passengers
Max. Seating 2 crew and 18 passengers
Max. Takeoff Weight 18,260 lb. (8,300 kg)
First Flight November 2009 (as AW149)
Source: AgustaWestland